by J. Richard Marra
Newtown, Connecticut shuddered on December 14, 2012. While the massacre of twenty-six innocents was unexpected, what followed was far from unpredictable. While the victim’s loved ones grieved, the NRA consoled itself with a litany of obfuscation, obstruction, political attacks and deal making, and moral panic. The magnitude of the tragedy changed Connecticut law, with much ado over the State’s allegedly biased treatment of the gun industry. However with the autonomic support of the gun lobby and complicit neo-conservative legislators, President Obama’s regulatory proposals were predictably defeated, although by a very small and stubborn margin.
Unsurprisingly, subsequent debate was scripted and routine, leaving ideological and cultural elephants largely ignored. These include how America’s culture of toxic masculinity (rugged individualism, competition, patriarchy), bigotry, violence and militarism are leveraged for the marketing of increasingly lethal firearms in the civilian market. Others involve the increased public hazard and the transfer of liability and cost to private citizens. Most references to the sordid history of legislative collusion with the gun industry to maximize profits over public safety were smothered by a tsunami of truisms concerning rights, militias, oppressive governments, self-defense, patriotism and technical details of regarding weapons and magazines.
Unfortunately, some socialist commentators surfed this tsunami. They admirably offered proposals that stressed social and cultural conditions (e.g. decreased access to mental health and family services, and unemployment), yet largely failed to demonstrate how marketing strategies intersect with the mechanisms of capitalism. These include the processes of accumulation by dispossession, commodification and social-cost reallocation within the broader context of the class struggle between workers and the American “corporatocracy.” The socialist analysis of marketing can particularly show how commodification and design-centric marketing of lethality is enabled and reinforced by the capitalist social messaging.
A socialist analysis might well emerge from a review of three central concepts, beginning with the “commodity.” For Marx, a “commodity” is a product of human labor (goods or services) that is offered for sale within some market. Commodities have “values” (the amount of labor expended in its production or performance), “use values” (utility), “exchange values” (the amount of the commodity that is exchanged for some amount of other commodities) and a “price” (the money form of the exchange value.) “Commodification” transforms goods and services not previously offered within a specific market, into commodities. It requires, in part, a “marketing” strategy that arouses needs, lobbies politically for the establishment and enforcement of personal ownership and use rights, insures profitability, and mitigates profit risks.
Marx also introduces a crucial socio-psychological mechanism, the “fetish of the commodity.” Within the capitalist marketplace, a firearm’s value is not determined by the amount of labor expended to produce it. Firearm transactions occur through the medium of money, and hence the underlying social relations of labor are obscured. The presence of a transactional medium, money as a “universal equivalent,” invests and quantifies firearms with an “intrinsic value.” The firearm’s actual labor value is thereby “transformed” into a subjective intrinsic value, reflected in its exchange value and price, which bears no psychological connection to the underlying social relations of the labor that produced it.
Once a purchaser’s assessment of value is no longer constrained by the social relations of labor, it may be determined by other factors. These can include degrees of utility (relative effectiveness for a single purpose), expanded utility (new uses for the same commodity), and affective utility (emotional needs or desires). These determinants are reflected in the marketing of increasing firearm lethality within new civilian markets, that satisfy new needs and provide psychophysical stimulation and a sense of self-esteem derived from their ownership.
Commodification is reflected in the history of gun-control legislation. Consider the 1934 National Firearms Act, which regulated fully automatic weapons, and military weapons, like the Thompson submachine gun, and the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. In 1934, the NRA was not primarily a corporate lobbying organization and firearm market determinants were significantly different than today. The NRA supported the legislation, and many members considered the Thompson a “gangster weapon,” unsuitable for the civilian market. Today, Congress, in collusion with the gun lobby, has allowed the assault weapons ban to expire and the NRA continues to work feverishly to commodify militarized firearms and accessories within the civilian market.
Commodification also introduces new uses for militarized firearms. Once civilian-market access is secured, use values can proliferate. A person might purchase an MK3 CBR Carbine “Battle Rifle” because of its utility for self-defense or target shooting. However, they might also use it to protect communities against criminals, arm community militias or defend the Second Amendment. Each new utility increases the weapon’s intrinsic value and provides a basis for the introduction of new lethality features that drive additional sales.
Affective utility plays a central marketing role. Most gun owners are middle-aged, white, high school educated and politically conservative; firearm ownership is exciting and patriotic. The adrenaline rush ignited by shooting firearms creates a sense of physical strength, heightened masculinity and rugged independence, stirring to life the “bad ass” warrior within. Bad asses, notoriously, don’t feel insecure, powerless, fearful of strangers, dependent or confused in an uncertain world. Design innovations determine who are the baddest asses, and this is often involves who possesses the baddest ass magazine or flash suppressor. Given that the shrinking civilian firearms market requires repeat sales to maintain profits, gun manufacturers and the NRA appeal to the heroic fantasies of hyper-vigilant males to continually stir a toxic stew of affective needs to maximize sales.
The affective utility of militarized firearms extends to individual social relations that establish self-esteem through group membership. Civilians who value owning militarized firearms appreciate the militarization of civil society. The neo-liberal American military-security-industrial complex and gun manufacturers proffer this appreciation. Seeking ongoing profitability, gun manufacturers happily stoke “moral panics” and ideological designs fabricated within the neo-conservative lexicon of “terrorism” and “big government.” It is not surprising that NRA-supported Tea Party gun enthusiasts attend Occupy meetings with rifles as a patriotic exercise. Since its majority sports-shooting and environmentally friendly faction was replaced by a minority of neo-conservative conspiracy mongers and Second Amendment zealots at the “Revolt at Cincinnati” in 1977, the NRA has transformed itself into a powerful corporate lobbying and ideological propaganda machine. Today, the ownership of militarized firearms represents a public token of membership in the neo-conservative community and a subjective measure of the self-esteem thereby established.
Additionally, corporate-government collusion increases gun sales. Once commodification is successful, marketing promotes additional needs and develops new market niches. Consider, marketing militarized firearms to vigilantes. Neo-conservative public officials, who pass “Stand Your Ground” laws, champion our right and “civic responsibility” to protect our families, communities and ourselves. Marketing reminds us that, because there is much to fear and government is incapable of an effective defense, gun ownership promises safety.
Marketing militarized firearms to families is big business. Children are a mouse-click away from images of adolescent girls holding right-sized, pink AR-15s. Mothers’ marketing are targets, especially for self-defense and “social” shooting. The adage, “If you teach a man to hunt, he goes hunting. If you teach a woman to hunt, the entire family goes hunting” rings true. A 2009 National Shooting Sports Foundation survey indicates that the number of women purchasing guns has recently increased 83 percent.
As Tim Dickenson mentions, “In less than a decade, … 30 states [have jettisoned] regulations that protect kids from guns – removing age restrictions on hunting licenses or no longer requiring that children take a gun-safety course…” “Top industry players also support a magazine called Junior Shooters – gun porn for children as young as eight; a recent edition featured a photo of a Rock River LAR-15 assault rifle [my italics] under the headline “Awesome!”…The magazine entices advertisers with the promise of reaching “the next generation of shooters and voters!”
Beyond families, all potential markets must be maintained and expanded. Due to the potential for decreasing profits through a reduction in the 40 percent of gun sales that occur without background checks, it is not surprising that the industry opposes that component of Obama’s legislation. Market-size concerns also drive the NRA’s opposition to the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
The step is small from a need for accumulation, a commodity fetish contrived within a militarized and neo-liberal American social consciousness, and a declining market for firearms to design-based lethality marketing. Adults who do not own firearms are unlikely to purchase one. People who own one gun will generally not purchase another. Those with more than two guns will likely purchase additional and more lethal ones. Military lethality has motivated the purchases of mass murderers that legally possessed more than two firearms, as was the case in Aurora, Fort Hood, Northern Illinois University, and Virginia Tech. Due to current market peculiarities and cultural and psychological conditions, military weapons, along with regular lethal design innovations, continue to be central to firearms marketing. It is unsurprising that much debate after Sandy Hook focused on militarized firearm design and high-capacity clips that reflect marketing dynamics.
The marketing of militarized firearms to civilians also serves American imperialist designs. The success of an “all-volunteer” military requires an ongoing indoctrination of young people. Making militarized-firearm ownership commonplace, and a token of patriotism, prepares the impressionable for “heroic” military service. Training begins with video games, especially those concerning anti-“terrorism” or drug-wars. Marketers aim to “hook the kids” on firearms like the mini-AR-15, including youngsters in the same demographic as Adam Lanza.
Lethality is profitable, especially when increased social costs are transferred to the public. That was in part accomplished in 2005 with the passage of the NRA-supported “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.” The act protects firearms manufacturers and dealers from liability for negligence when crimes are committed with their products. Profits are defended by an absence of product design oversight, and weak, uncoordinated and underfunded licensing regulation. The public now endures a dispossession of some of its wealth to pay for social costs through higher taxes to cover law-enforcement and health-care sequelae. Thereby, gun manufacturers reap unearned growth through a legislated transfer of social costs onto the public.
The gun industry has much to gain, with little accountability, from increasingly lethal designs. Given industry-supported gaps in sales regulation, militarized firearms easily get into the hands of criminals. Each design innovation finds its way onto the street and the arms race with law enforcement expands. “Gang members are acquiring high-powered, military-style weapons and equipment, resulting in potentially lethal encounters with law enforcement officers, rival gang members, and innocent bystanders. Law enforcement officials in several regions nationwide report gang members in their jurisdiction are armed with military-style weapons, such as high-caliber semiautomatic rifles, semiautomatic variants of AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and body armor.” The costs are borne by taxpayers, not gun manufacturers.
Socialists can provide a compelling perspective on the insidiousness and destructive impact of capitalist firearm commodification and marketing in America. Socialist organizations can work individually and in coalitions to sponsor thoughtful public discussions about regulating militarized firearms and their marketing. They can fight to overturn Citizens United, thereby ameliorating the current pernicious collusion between legislators and the firearms industry. Socialists can publicize a political attitude to diminish cultural conceptions that enable the militarization of the public commons. Intersections among racism, toxic masculinity and militarism that underlie firearm marketing can be demonstrated. Socialists’ commitment to non-violence and pacifism can help discourage the marketing of militaristic video games and other violent media; including those that provide free virtual military training to millions of vulnerable young Americans (Like Six Days in Fallujah). Finally, they can illuminate how accumulation by dispossession involves the transfer of social costs to the public.
J. Richard Marra lives in Connecticut and is the current Convener of The Socialist Editorial Board. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association.
1. See Hogan, John. “A modest proposal for curbing homicides: Socialism.” Scientific American Blogs 24 January 2011. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2011/01/24/a-modest-proposal-for-curbing-homicides-socialism, and Nagin, Rick. “Fight to End Gun Violence is Key to Defending Democracy.” People’s World 18 January 2013. http://www.peoplesworld.org.
2. The Wikipedia entry on “Commodity (Marxism)” provides a summary of the central concepts. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki Commodity_%28Marxism%29.
3. See Stroud, Angela. “Good Guys with Guns: Hegemonic Masculinity and Concealed Weapons.” Gender & Society 26 (2012): 216-238.
4. See Peters, Justin. “The NRA Claims the AR-15 Is Useful for Hunting and Home Defense. Not Exactly.” Crime 2 January 2013. http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2013/01/02/gun_control_ar_15_rifle_the_nra_claims_the_ar_15_rifle_is_for_hunting_and.html.
5. Concerning xenophobia and its relation to American exceptionalism, see Waugaman, Elisabeth. “How Do Americans Perceive One Another?” Psychology Today 4 February 2013. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/whats-in-name/201302how do-americans-perceive-one-another.
6. See The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market. Washington, D.C., Violence Policy Center (2011). http://www.vpc.org/studies/militarization.pdf.
7. The Militarization, 6.
8. See Sugarmann, Josh. National Rifle Association: Money, Firepower, Fear. Washington, D.C., Violence Policy Center (1992): 45 – 66.
9. Nelson, Georgia’s “Family Protection Ordinance” required “every head of household to own a gun and ammunition to ‘provide for the emergency management of the city’” and to “‘provide for and protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.’” The bill creates a virtual draft of the qualified and compliant into a local militia, armed at the expense of the citizens of Nelson. Hence, gun manufacturers commodify firearms in a new market of “community policing” in collusion with an enabling government with close ties to the NRA. See Brumback, Kate. “Nelson, Georgia Family Protection Ordinance Approved.” Huff Post Politics 1 April 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/01/nelson-georgia-family-protection-ordinance_n_2995657.html.
10. Bell, Larry. “Disarming Realities: As Gun Sales Soar, Gun Crimes Plummet.” Forbes 14 May 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrybell/2013/05/14/disarming-realities-as-gun-sales-soar-gun-crimes-plummet.
11. Dickenson, Tim. “The Gun Industries Deadly Addiction.” Rolling Stone, 29 February 2013. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-gun-industrys-deadly-addiction-20130228.
12. McKay, Tom. “40 Percent of Guns Are Sold Without Background Checks, Because of People Like Larry Pratt.” policymic. http://www.policymic.com/articles/22816/40-percent-of-guns-are-sold-without-background-checks-because-of-people-like-larry-pratt.
13. Funk, Lindsay. “UN Arms Treaty: Why is the NRA Freaking Out Over It?” policymic. http://www.policymic.com/articles/33197/un-arms-treaty-why-is-the-nra-freaking-out-over-it.
14. Diaz, Tom. “The American Gun Industry: Designing and Marketing Increasingly Lethal Weapons.” Suing the Gun Industry. Ed. Timothy D. Lytton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.
15. Wade, Lisa. “The Marketing Tactics of Firearm Manufacturers.” Sociological Images, 29 January 2013. http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/01/29/the-marketing-tactics-of-firearm-manufacturers.
16. See Nisen, Max. “Smith and Wesson Hoped to Sell Lots of Semiautomatic Rifles to Adam Lanza’s Demographics.” Business Insider, 20 December 2012. http://www.businessinsider.com/smith-and-wesson-firearm-marketing-2012-12.